- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2000

Negotiators hoping to end a 13-day strike against Verizon Communications appeared close to a deal late Thursday as union representatives offered up a new proposal addressing job security.

Both sides appeared hopeful that a deal could be reached, a shift in mood from earlier in the day when some striking workers threatened to walk out of the talks if no agreement was reached by midnight Thursday.

"Talks certainly seemed to step up their pace starting late yesterday," said Jim Spellane, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, one of two unions involved in the talks. "Today's going to be a pivotal day."

Company officials, meanwhile, said they were determined to end the strike that has hampered phone service and left thousands waiting for repairs.

Verizon had hoped to reach agreement with the unions by midnight.

Spokesman Harry Mitchell said "serious talks" were going on.

"We hope to hammer in the last nail in this thing," he said.

But by that midnight deadline, neither an agreement nor a union walkout had been announced. The unions had said they would stay at the table past midnight only if significant progress toward a new contract had been made.

Another company official said the threats to leave the talks may have helped move negotiators closer to an agreement.

"Sometimes, it's helpful to have a deadline," said Eric Rabe, a spokesman for the company. "It gets people focused."

Earlier Thursday, officials from the Communications Workers of America, the other union involved in the talks, noted that the two sides began to make progress late Wednesday after several days of fruitless discussion on overtime and job security.

"That was positive … . We haven't done that all week," said CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson.

The unions are demanding that Verizon end mandatory overtime, relieve some job stress for service-call-center workers, and assure employees that they will keep their jobs and won't have to relocate as the company grows.

But Verizon says it needs flexibility.

"It remains very important that [the new contract] lets our company be as competitive as possible," Mr. Rabe said.

He pointed out that the company's biggest competitors, AT&T; and MCI WorldCom, are only partly unionized.

"Frankly, we are the good guys from the union standpoint… . We want to reach a contract and we want to do it now," Mr. Rabe said.

The strike of the 87,200 technicians and customer-service workers began Aug. 6, affecting 25 million businesses and homes from Maine to Virginia.

Although regular phone service has not been disrupted, the strike has delayed calls to operators and directory assistance. It also has created a large backlog in repair orders and completely stalled new-service requests.

Rain and thunderstorms throughout the Mid-Atlantic states also has hampered the company's ability to keep up with the repair work. The backlog for phones to be fixed has grown to more than three times the normal amount, to about 100,000 as of yesterday morning.

"Clearly, this time of year is the busiest in the telephone business," Mr. Rabe said, referring to the end of summer and start of college season. "Typically, we would staff up."

Keeping up "becomes more and more challenging every moment the strike goes on," he added.

Verizon's 30,000 managers are working 12-hour shifts daily, trying to clear as many repair orders as possible. With the help of nearly 300 Bell Atlantic retirees who joined them voluntarily two days ago, they have been fixing 25,000 to 30,000 problems a day.

The company has taken out full-page advertisements in major newspapers in the Northeast, explaining the dispute to clients. It has also bought radio air time.

While negotiations at L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Southwest heated up on their 12th day yesterday, nearly 5,000 workers hit the picket lines at some 450 locations.

Striking workers who have completed eight hours of picketing this week will receive their first compensation checks for $200 from the unions Monday. The CWA has a budget of $220 million in cash and $200 million through a credit line, which is used to pay members during strikes.

If picketing hits the 28th day, the pay will jump to $300 a week.

Shares of Verizon closed at $40.50, down $1.25, or 3 percent, on the New York Stock Exchange yesterday.

• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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